I’m not sure what I expected from The Hunger Games, Gary Ross’s adaptation of the best-selling sci-fi novel by Suzanne Collins (which I have not read). Descriptions of the film boiled down to “a PG-13 Battle Royale,” which seemed like old hat to me. Some folks defended the concept by describing the story as a combination of Battle Royale and reality television, which sounded just like Series 7: The Contenders. I guess I expected a somewhat derivative, mainstream version of these existing subcultural phenomena, which themselves were just a take off from The Most Dangerous Game. What – I wondered to myself – could The Hunger Games offer that none of these existing, excellent version of the same basic concept did not employ?
The answer, I discovered with a small amount of pleasure, was absolute nuttiness. I never thought I’d describe a film by Pleasantville and Seabiscuit director Gary Ross as “whackadoodle,” but if the shoe fits. I have no idea how faithful an adaptation this version of The Hunger Games is, but I do know that as its own entity, as an isolated cinematic experience, it prefers outlandishly non sequitur asides in favor of its arch, dystopian plotline. The result is still an awkward mish-mash of melodrama and kooky conceptualization, but I don’t think I’d have it any other way. If he’d played it straight, The Hunger Games could have been dull as dishwater.
The story, and I’m sure fans of the novel will be able to expound upon it in greater detail than I’m about to (and will want to correct me on, if the film didn’t make it clear to the layman), takes place in the far flung future. The country of Panem, which Donald Sutherland pronounces like a now-defunct airline, apparently suffered a massive civil war between its central, affluent district – District 1 – and its outlying, working class districts. Afterwards, the victors founded a petty, spiteful and childish annual event called “The Hunger Games,” in which two children between the ages of 12 and 18 from each district are chosen at random, and forced to fight to the death. Children from the wealthy districts are trained from an early age to fend for themselves, giving them the edge. If the movie is any indication, this kind of forward thinking never occurred to any of the poorer communities, whose tributes are usually outmatched.
The film follows two kids from District 12, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson of Journey 2 The Mysterious Island) who are drafted into this year’s Hunger Games. Actually, Katniss volunteered to prevent her innocent sister 12-year-old sister Primrose from going instead, making her the hero of the tale. They are stripped from their families and given the all-star treatment in District 1, where they are thrust on television to represent their districts and earn themselves “sponsors,” who alone are capable of sending them useful care packages once the battle royale begins. Katniss becomes an immediate audience favorite due to her no nonsense attitude, altruistic reasons for signing up and her deadly accuracy with a bow, but despite this supposedly significant development she only ever gets care packages from her alcoholic coach, played with utter Woody Harrelson-ness by Woody Harrelson. I’d like to think that the novel actually explores this concept in detail, because the film sets it up like the most important thing in the world and then never goes anywhere interesting with it.
The Hunger Games, the film, is full of distracting craziness that seems to have no particular bearing on the story. The culture of District 1 is so mindbogglingly overdesigned that it elicits nervous laughter. I genuinely have no idea if it’s supposed to be funny, the fact that the prevailing fashion sense seems to have been a holdover from Cirque du Soleil, but it plays like an attempt at high camp. Several supposedly key components of the actual Hunger Games themselves are introduced from out of nowhere, like ridiculously-named poisonous wasps called “Tracker Jackers,” which the film is forced to explain by suddenly cutting to two Phantom Menace-style sports commentators, played with overt foppishness by Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones, a fantastic actor who’s given nothing to do. Maybe he’s important in the sequels, I don’t know. There are also holographic dogs that the game’s producer, played by Wes Bentley, summons from the ground like a Star Trek holodeck. But they can be injured, for some reason. There’s no explanation for this technology, making me wonder if it makes perfect sense in the book. In the film, it’s so randomly introduced as to be unintentionally hilarious.
The drama itself is well acted but underdeveloped. The game cast brings, at turns, utter seriousness and an appropriate sense of silliness to the proceedings, but the dystopian “Us vs. Them” dynamic is particularly unexplored. The death of a young girl from one of the outlying districts inspires sudden rioting, with no explanation as to why this hasn’t happened before, or doesn’t happen all the time. Katniss and Peeta are supposedly dangerous to the establishment as underdog favorites with the power to inspire hope in the masses, but the relationship between their actions in the games themselves and the common audience is never firmly established.
As for the games themselves, which take up the second half of the film, they are suitably entertaining but somewhat neutered thanks to shaky camerawork and uninspired set pieces. At one point Katniss tries to destroy her rivals supplies by blowing up a series of mines they placed around them, presumably for protection. But then the supplies blow up from the inside, implying that they were rigged to explode if their rightful owners tried to use them. There’s no explanation for that. Maybe it makes sense in the book.
The Hunger Games turns out to be an amusing diversion, filled with “WTF” moments and occasionally involving storytelling, but lacks the grandeur necessary to convey what a big deal it’s supposed to be. There’s no sense of greater significance, within the story or thematically, and the action is merely enjoyable, and never quite thrilling enough to keep the film aloft on its shoulders alone.
Without reading the novel, which the film has not inspired me to do (unlike the Harry Potter movies or “Game of Thrones,” for example), I can’t speak to whether it’s a faithful adaptation. I can say that it’s not a bona fide success. The Hunger Games stands to be one of the nuttiest, most scattershot blockbusters in recent memory, but at least it’s distinctive. Unless you've seen Battle Royale, Series 7: The Contenders, The Most Dangerous Game, The Condemned, Death Race 2000, Gamer, Hard Target, Surviving the Game and The Running Man, obviously.
Photo Credits: Murray Close